Yvonne was diagnosed with Tonsil Cancer in November 2018.
A yoga and kickboxing addict with a wicked sense of humour and a passion for food, wine and cooking, 54-year-old Yvonne McClaren was born and bred in Adelaide. Working as an executive in the not-for-profit sector and with a love for travel, Yvonne lived in Sydney, Melbourne, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and for a few months in Vietnam when she found out she had tonsil cancer in November 2018.
In August 2018 I left Australia to travel around Vietnam for 6-12 months making contacts for a food and hospitality project I’d planned to do there. I’d had a sore throat for seven months and was relying on a cocktail of medications including nasal spray, painkillers, anti-inflammatories, antihistamines and antibiotics from home. Somewhere in the back of mind I kept thinking “something is not right here,” but despite numerous visits to the doctor both at home and in Vietnam I kept being told it was chronic tonsillitis.
In November I returned to Adelaide after a family member suffered a heart attack, and decided to see about having a tonsillectomy. I arrived in Australia on Sunday morning and saw my local GP Tuesday morning. The rest of the week was a blur. An appointment with an ENT specialist followed by a PET Scan, MRI, the list of “tests” goes on. My friends rallied and made decisions for me.
By the time the surgeon said “viral tonsil cancer, squamous cells, biopsy will determine,” I had all but tuned out. In my mind, this was meant to be a simple tonsillectomy. I was in denial.
My treatment involved surgery followed by six weeks of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiotherapy.
Calvary North Adelaide Hospital had only just purchased the da Vinci® Xi robot, and I was the first head and neck cancer patient at the hospital to receive this new robotic surgery. I remember asking for a selfie with the robot when they wheeled me in which was refused (LOL). I’m not a Star Wars fan but the robot looked like R2 D2! My surgeon, Dr Andrew Foreman, removed a tumour roughly 19x15x17mm, both tonsils, a third of my tongue and 25-30 lymph nodes in my neck.
When I woke after surgery I was in shock. I couldn’t speak or swallow. It was frightening. I had a nasal feeding tube, a catheter, a lymph node drain and surgical stockings. It was all so foreign to me. The nursing staff were brilliant.
Despite being in surgery for nearly five hours, my mouth and jaw were relatively pain free. In fact, my surgeon commented how little I was using pain relief. For a girl who fainted having her ears pierced, I can only attribute that to the surgeon’s skill and the robot doing a mighty fine job. They are also a big part of why, 12 months after surgery, I am healing well and able to taste and use my tongue reasonably well.
I spent twenty days in Calvary Hospital, including a week in the intensive care unit. I had never been in hospital before and certainly never had an operation. I didn’t understand anything and had no idea what to expect. For reasons beyond me, I thought this was going to be a walk in the park. I thought I’d be up kick boxing again in weeks and had given absolutely no thought to not eating food again for a very long time.
My surgeon suggested I have a PEG put in my stomach while I healed and transitioned to solid food. It was a good thing I had it put in as it was to be my best friend for the next 15 months.
I don’t think anyone can prepare you for the diagnosis, treatment or recovery as everyone is different in terms of how they react and heal. My cancer care team did not sugar coat anything and I am glad.
Being single I mostly cared for myself, managing my feeds and cleaning syringes. Friends and family helped with hospital runs. I also saw a naturopath to help in building up my immune system.
I was reasonably fit before cancer and now I am very fit. I lost 20 kgs and am now maintaining 15 kgs below my pre-cancer weight. Living alone beforehand made me self-sufficient and I am tenacious and determined. I am also a positive person and tend to just get on with it.
I still find eating, food preparation and speaking difficult. I have a general lack of confidence being out of mainstream corporate life now for so long. I still feel sorry for myself occasionally, Why, why me? What is this trying to teach me? While I know there is always someone worse off than me, some days I just think &^#% it, and I need to pick myself up and keep going. I do know that I was born to lead and teach others and to provide hope to others who are not as fortunate as me. That is what cancer has taught me. As Michael Douglas famously quoted, “Cancer didn’t bring me to my knees, it brought me to my feet”.
Some 15 months post treatment I am now studying and setting up an online business called, The Food Manifesto. I’m researching food as medicine which has been a life passion and I’m pursuing that because of cancer. I am also looking at recipes for people with allergies to commercially prepared liquid enteral nutrition formulas. The Food Manifesto is designed to be a support link between your dietitian and your kitchen. Head and neck cancer really gave me a life purpose and my business its sole purpose in many ways.
I didn’t do a lot of research on the actual cancer itself. In part I was in denial but also, I really didn’t want to know. I figured the professionals knew what they were doing. What I did research after treatment was food and the lack of information available was the impetus for writing my cookbook Easy Follow Easy Swallow, which I hope will be released soon. I thought who better to write this than me, not only do I have a love and passion for food, but I am a good cook and I have been through the process and would like to help others transition from PEG to mouth.
What would my advice be for head and neck cancer patients? Gee that’s a big question! Don’t underestimate the hurt locker. Don’t underestimate how strong you can be when you have to. Don’t underestimate the importance of exercise and fresh air. Don’t underestimate meditation. Don’t underestimate the impact your disease has on others and at all costs keep experimenting and trying new things and go back to them again even if you don’t think it will work – FOOD is LIFE.
Thank you Yvonne for sharing your story.
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